The Mobile Surfdoc – When two passions come together

We met Markus Emerich on the Surfing Medicine International Conference in Biarritz two years ago. As an ENT Doctor, he was impressively exhibiting two scientific posters and was eagerly visiting all of the lectures. His just-married wife Charlotte was accompanying him and they were traveling with their most beautiful balsa-wood longboard, a wedding gift. As there weren’t as many waves as we would have wished for, we didn’t share a large amount of time in the water. But during several talks and drinks it became obvious what a cool person he is: literally sharing a great passion for surfing and medicine, traveling and having a good time with good people. Needless to say Charlotte was at least equally charming.

As a landlocked, hard working doctor, those passions could not roam freely, so the young couple had a plan. The plan was: Traveling around the world to get as much surf as possible, being a Surfdoc and meeting great people along the way.

And so it went: the project Mobile Surfdoc was born. And what was more natural to Charlotte to set up a travelblog as a journalist so we could all be part of the „Surfsmurfs’” adventures.

Hi Markus, where are you surfing right now?

Galicia, Spain. I just visited my old roommate from the days when I lived in Vigo as a med student. It feels like home!

What was your traveling route so far?

We started off in the United States, bought a truck, and drove all the way through Mexico along the Pacific Coast. Then my wife and I made our way back to the US, spent some time in California, and headed to Fiji. In Fiji one of the World Surf League doctors showed me his work at the Fiji Pro Comp and we got to know life on tour. From there we went to New Zealand, Indonesia, Western Australia, East Coast Australia, and then back to the States where our truck was waiting for us in storage. We had a marvelous fall surfing Central and Northern California. That was before Mc Ginger became president-elect. Just before the election we gave our truck to a friend and flew back to Europe.
Tell us about your life as a mobile Surfdoc. What were the most common things you had to care about?

Being a Surfdoc and mobile means facing a huge variety of medical problems that can differ from region to region. Obviously, colliding with your board or your fins and or the reef and needing stitches is pretty much the same thing all around the world. But there is more to surfing medicine than urgent first aid. Chronic conditions for example. Most surfers in Mexico do not have problems with their ears (Surfer’s Ear) unlike their northern neighbors in California. Instead, they have a high occurrence of eye problems (Surfer’s Eye).

Being somewhere remote with limited resources can show you your limits as a doctor at any time.

What was the most difficult consultation?

The most difficult consultations are usually with locals. Surfing injuries are typically pretty straightforward. The hardest part is telling the injured surfer he or she should stay out of the water. But I had a local in Indonesia come to me with an X-ray that was three weeks old and a badly healed fracture of his ankle. The options of treatment you have somewhere in the jungle are very limited and communicating this to the person is not fun at all.
On the other hand most consultations with surfers can be really fun and rewarding. Imagine, the waves are pumping, you got hit by your board and have a cut somewhere on your head. Your fellow surfer gets out of the water with you, cleans your wound, stitches it back together, and then you paddle back out together. You have got to love this guy, right?
Sometimes things get really hairy though. I witnessed one severe accident where a surfer hit the reef with his head, drowned, and was pulled out of the water just in time by fellow surfers. Then it was up to me to take care of him and get him out of G-land, Indonesia, via helicopter which was no fun at all. I was scared as shit his damaged lungs might give in. He made it, not because of my help but because the injuries were just not bad enough. Being somewhere remote with limited resources can show you your limits as a doctor at any time.

Combining my two passions in a scientific project was a logical step for me.

You even started a project during your trip. What are you researching on?

Baja nights are long and pretty chilly. Usually, there are a few other surfers around camping beside you where the desert meets the ocean and you get to know them sitting around a fire at night. When I told them I was an ENT resident they wanted to know all about Surfer’s Ear because this is a very common problem in Californian surfers. Since I had brought a mobile otoscope which attaches to my phone and takes pictures and videos of the ear canal I was able to show them if they have Surfer’s Ear and how severe it was. They were stoked and I was stoked. It was awesome to see some ear canals. It’s not like I desperately missed the hospital but becoming a full-time surfer after two years of full-time training as an ENT doctor was a big change. Combining my two passions in a scientific project was a logical step for me.

Are there any results yet?

I have got the data now of ear canals from surfers all over the world together with data about their surfing habits. The evaluation is far away from finished. But I can tell you this much: If most of the time you surf without a wetsuit, do not worry about Surfer’s Ear. If you use any kind of neoprene consider protecting your ears by wearing a hood or ear plugs!

Would you do a trip like this again?

Hell yeah. Give us unlimited time, money and knowledge, and we wouldn’t be doing anything else! My wife is a journalist but she became a skillful surf-nurse over the trip. Part of our idea was not to make any money and not to worry about money for a year. This kind of self-sponsoring is great but only works for a limited period of time, unfortunately. Now it’s time for me to continue my residency in the hospital and for my wife to work for a newspaper again.

What are your plans for the near future?

Get a job, finish the evaluation of the Know-Your-Ears Project, and inspire somebody else to travel as a mobile surfdoc. Being a doctor and a surfer goes well together. I am deeply convinced this year made me a better doctor. Also, it was convenient for quite a few injured surfers out there. I would love to see other doctors tap into this win-win situation.

Follow the Mobile Surfdoc’s stories on his blog:

And this is the Surfsmurfs’ travel-blog:

All photos copyright by the Surfsmurfs